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A moment in history

Covid-19 has created a fundamental rupture in the fabric of our communal life, disrupting our established infrastructure and institutions.

In my inaugural address as Chief Rabbi in 2013, I made the following observation: “Every generation faces its own challenges and every generation must provide its response. With our minds turned to the past and our eyes fixed firmly on the future … we must find the necessary tools to transform our challenges into opportunities, as we hold on ever so tightly to our spiritual legacy, which passes through our hands, en-route to the generations to come.”

I never imagined then that the defining challenge of our time would hit us with such sudden, devastating potency or that it would catch the world by such surprise. In addition to the climate crisis, the refugee crisis and ever-deepening global, political and social polarisation, we must now prepare to contend with the aftermath of a pandemic, which has created extreme economic disadvantage, significant mental health challenges and yet further political and social upheaval.

Since March 2020, I have instinctively turned my thoughts to how the impact of the pandemic will change our Jewish community experience.

Covid-19 has created a fundamental rupture in the fabric of our communal life, disrupting our established infrastructure and institutions. Every type of Jewish organisation has been forced to reimagine their modus operandi.

At one and the same time, both our inextricable connectedness and our vulnerability have been highlighted. Many of the primary aspects of our religious practice and engagement, which have anchored us for generations, have been impeded, altered beyond recognition and, in some cases, cancelled altogether.

The pandemic has brought about a tectonic and generational shift in the way that members of the Jewish community engage with Jewish life. For many, habits have been broken and we will now have the daunting task of re-establishing them. As we slowly transition into a more regular rhythm of activity, a paradigm-shift in Jewish communal life is called for.

I believe that this is a moment in history for us to consider how our communities should evolve once more…

At the turn of the 20th Century, most of our “houses of worship” were little more than that — places for formal, congregational prayer. More recently, we have developed them into powerhouses of Jewish religious, educational, social and cultural excellence. Indeed, my office has made that development a key focus of my Chief Rabbinate, providing essential guidance and financial support to help communities realise their potential. However, I believe that this is a moment in history for us to consider how our communities should evolve once more, in order to most effectively hand our precious Jewish legacy over to the next generation.

Over the past few months, I have been encouraging communities to consider the way forward, mindful of halacha and recognising that no one response will be appropriate for all communities. Similarly, in meetings with the lay and professional leadership of our outstanding communal organisations, I have been hearing about the real challenges they face and the different ways they plan to respond. In our quest to reconceptualise our vision of community and the nature of Jewish engagement, as well as to strengthen our communal infrastructure, we ignore our pandemic experiences at our peril. Some concrete lessons we have learned are immediately apparent, and most importantly, a number of principles guiding the way forward can now be discerned.

In the realm of synagogue worship alone, the number of lessons that have been learned over the last year has been considerable. We have learnt that there is something precious about life-cycle events with greater online accessibility, smaller physical gatherings and less ostentatious celebrations. We have learnt that complete Shabbat and Yomtov services need not be as long as some were used to.

Ironically, many have felt more connected to their community than ever before. This, I believe, is primarily for two reasons. Firstly, Rabbis, Rebbetzens and community leaders have excelled, reaching out pastorally with affection and concern. Secondly, whereas previously one needed to cross a threshold in order to attend a community event, now one just needs to press a few buttons.

We must continue to take full advantage of the “Zoom revolution”. We recognise that, often, one’s physical presence significantly enhances the inspiration one receives, so some events should be exclusively in-person. Others should be exclusively online, while many should surely now be hy